Joe McKelvey GAC: the IRA’s own GAA club

This is the story of Joe McKelvey GAC, a GAA club formed by the IRA in Belfast. Founded in 1924, the Joseph McKelvey Gaelic Athletic Club was named after the executed former commandant of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. McKelvey had been a founder member of the O’Donovan Rossa GAA club in Belfast. The choice of the name and the founding of McKelveys GAC followed the return of Lt. Gen. Joe McKelvey’s remains to Belfast from Dublin for burial in October 1924.

McKelveys burial was regarded by many Belfast republicans as the event which prompted the post-Civil War re-organisation of the IRA in Belfast. Clearly many in the Belfast IRA saw echoes (or wanted to see echoes) in the parallels with the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa. That funeral had catalysed republicans prior to the declaration of a republic in April 1916. The Belfast IRA, including McKelvey, had formed the O’Donovan Rossa GAA club in his memory. At the time the symbolism of forming a club in McKelvey’s name was no doubt well understood. In case it wasn’t, McKelveys GAC made it explicit: while Rossa played in white jerseys with a tricolour panel on the front, McKelveys played in a black jersey with a tricolour panel on the front.

Early photo of McKelveys team, dating to around 1926 (published in Ray Quinn's A Rebel View.

Early photo of McKelveys team, dating to around 1926 (published in Ray Quinn’s A Rebel View.)

In 1925 McKelveys fielded a team in the South Antrim Junior Hurling League. A surviving line-up from a hurling league game against Sarsfields in Donegall Park in June 1926 gives a flavour of the club’s early playing members. That day the team was G. Donnelly, Davy Matthews, J. O’Boyle, Hugh Matthews, Joe McGurk, A. Johnston, Frank Pimley, J. Ralph, Hugh Corvin, F. McGoldrick, M. Maguire, O. McGeough, A. O’Donnell, J. Curran and James Thompson. The report on the games notes that regulars N. Donnelly and George Nash were both missing (McKelveys still won 2-1 to 1-0). The same year, McKelveys’ footballers beat Parnells, then lost to Stephens in the South Antrim Junior Football Championship semi-final. The Irish News report on the semi-final (which McKelveys lost 3-4 to 4-0) includes the following line-up: E. Colligan, J. Meighan, J. Dempsey, H. Laverty, J. Doherty, O. McGeough, N. Donnelly, G. Nash, J. Havlin, D. Matthews, A. O’Donnell, H. Corvin, F. Pimley, G. Donnelly and E. Quinn. McKelveys N. Donnelly also played on the Antrim team that defeated Cavan in the final of the Northern Division of the National Football League in 1926.
Hugh Corvin (the Belfast IRA O/C), Davy Matthews (who was later Belfast IRA O/C), Hugh Matthews (Davy’s brother and another future Belfast IRA O/C) and George Nash, O/C of one of the Belfast IRA companies were all prominent Belfast IRA staff members. Others, like Joe McGurk who had been imprisoned the previous year for possession of arms and weapons, are well-known IRA men. Visibly, McKelveys was very much an IRA team drawing on the small pool of active republicans left in Belfast. It was also very much an anti-treaty IRA side. The O’Donovan Rossa club, which McKelvey helped found, was associated with Belfast IRA staff who had taken and, in 1924, still remained, on the pro-treaty side. If other prominent South Antrim clubs, like Morans, Kevin Barrys (also originally an ‘IRA club’), Stephens, Parnells and Ardoyne had any associations it could equally have been to organisations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians or Irish National Foresters. In that regard, McKelveys being left as the sole IRA-sponsored GAA club may be a reflection of the political landscape of nationalist Belfast in 1924-25.
An early photograph (above) survives of a McKelveys’ football team, which appears to date around 1925-26 and must presumably be one of the first junior football teams fielded by the club. Those that can be identified in the photo include Hugh Corvin, Jack McNally, Davy and Hugh Matthews, Joe Hanna and Jimmy Steele. McNally, Hanna and Steele were also intimately involved in the IRA in Belfast from 1924. McNally dropped out of republican activities for a number of years after 1927 and doesn’t seem to feature in any recorded line-ups for McKelveys from that date onwards, suggesting this photo dates to 1927 at the latest.
The club had a base in Rockmount Street, just off the Falls Road, where an old wooden building, known as the McKelvey hut, was used. It is also clear, from various accounts in the 1920s, that it was openly known to be a base of the Belfast IRA as individuals who wished to join the IRA went there to ask about joining. Its official name, when it is mentioned in the press, was McKelvey Hall, later (in the 1930s) being known as the McKelvey Recreation Club. By the mid-1930s McKelveys also used Pearse Hall, in the city centre, as their base.
By 1927, McKelveys had attracted a number of transfers, including Jack Gaffney from Morans and Art Thornbury from O’Connells, both of whom were closely associated with the IRA. While the McKelveys’ footballers came bottom of the South Antrim Senior Football League, they did well in the Senior Football Championship that year and came up against Jack Gaffneys former club, Morans, in the semi-final. The line-up for the semi-final in Shaun’s Park was A. O’Donnell, J. McCrealey, Jack Gaffney, P. Rafftery, M. Maguire, R. Boomer, H. Lavery, Art Thornbury, T. Carabine, D. McGregor, J. McKeown, J. Steele, Hugh Corvin, E. Quinn and A. Johnston.
Morans were too strong for McKelveys, though, winning 2-9 to 1-1. The Irish News reports that the best back was McCrealey, Corvin and Steele best of an indifferent forward line, and Thornbury was the outstanding player on the pitch. Jack Gaffney, only returned from six weeks out due to illness, was described as not fully fit. The hurlers made it to the South Antrim Junior Hurling Championship final in 1927, losing heavily to Parnells, 8-4 to 2-0, who were winning their first honours, while the footballers made it through to the South Antrim Junior Football Championship final the same year.
In 1928, McKelveys lost Art Thornbury and Jack Gaffney who were arrested along with others at an Easter Commemoration in Milltown cemetery. They also lost George Nash to a three year sentence for illegal possession of documents. But McKelveys did make the final of the South Antrim Junior Football Championship where they met Kevin Barrys on 20th May at Corrigan Park. By half-time, McKelveys were 1-4 to 0-0 ahead. They didn’t score again in the second half and two Kevin Barrys goals reduced their lead to a single point. But that was how the game ended and McKelveys survived to become South Antrim Junior Football champions. They then played Lamh Dearg, Toome a week later in Toome in the final of the Antrim Junior Football Championship. By half-time, McKelveys were 1-1 to 0-1 behind. McKelveys inched closer during a scrappy second half, trailing by 1-2 (5 points) to 0-3 (3 points) with a few minutes to go. But, a goal from Lamh Dearg put the final result beyond doubt and it ended 2-2 to 0-3.
McKelveys also made the final of the Ben Madigan Cup on the 10th June where they played O’Connells in Corrigan Park. The McKelveys’ team was A. O’Donnell in goal, D. McCann, J. McCreely and J. McKeown in the full-back line, Joe O’Neill, T. Carabine and H. Laverty in the half-back line, Frank Pimley and Davy Matthews in midfield, Hugh Corvin, Jimmy Steele and J. Conkey in the half-forward line, T. Cunningham, P. Rafferty and A. Johnston in the full-forward line. Jimmy Steele scored one of the first half goals (the Irish News describing him as a live wire during the game), as McKelveys went into a 2-2 (8 points) to 0-0 half-time lead. The second half was fairly tame and McKelveys cruised home 3-2 (11 points) to 0-1 (1 point).
By 1929 McKelveys’ players like Matthews, Boomer, Pimley, Ward and O’Neill were being called up to the Antrim county sides, both football and hurling, and in Art Thornbury, the club had a dual inter-provincial player who was the outstanding player in the county, in both codes, in the 1920s. He had won a number of Ulster Senior Hurling championships. He playing on the side that defeated Cavan 4-3 to 3-1 for the 1926 Ulster title. Cavan had led for much of the game until Thornbury set up McCarry for the crucial third goal. In the 1927 final, Thornbury also played a lead role as Antrim again overcame Cavan, this time on a score-line of 5-4 to 3-3 at Breffni Park on 3rd October. Thornbury continued to star in Antrim’s defence throughout the 1920s, and played on Antrim teams which won further Ulster titles. In mid-April 1931, when Antrim entered the National Hurling League for the first time, Thornbury was a central part of the squad (he had also played regularly in the National Football League for Antrim). Antrim filled a place in Group B in 1931 that had been vacated by Wexford’s withdrawal. The first game, on 24th May 1931, at Portlaoise, finished Laois 4-4 Antrim 0-4. The other game was played against Dublin at Corrigan Park in Belfast on 2nd August and Antrim again lost, this time on a score of 4-4 to 2-2. Antrim weren’t to re-enter the National Hurling League until 1945 (although in some seasons a Northern Division was contested by some Ulster counties).
A lot of Belfast republicans were subjected to routine harassment by the northern government and some, including McKelveys players, were charged and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. As in 1928, Thornbury missed a portion of the 1930 season as he was arrested again at the 1930 Easter commemoration and received three months in prison, along with Hugh Matthews.
Despite the loss of players to arrest and imprisonment, by the early 1930s, the club was fielding teams in the Senior and Intermediate football, hurling and (from 1929) camogie leagues. McKelveys won the South Antrim Senior Football League in 1930-31 (the league itself was completed in November 1931) as well as the Senior Football Championship and the South Antrim Cup in football. As South Antrim champions, McKelveys contested the final of the Antrim Senior Football Championship against Cuchullains Dunloy on July 12th 1931 at Dunloy.
McKelveys were without Thornbury and Ward who had been suspended the previous week for being sent off when playing for the Antrim county side. Cuchullains, playing with a strong breeze in the first half, led 1-3 to no score at half time. McKelveys, who (The Irish News notes) also had to contend with playing uphill in the first half, began the second half strongly. As per regulations at the time, both clubs had supplied umpires to the referee, John Osborne, but on a number of occasions the umpires disagreed over scores. Carabine and Jimmy Steele were both guilty of wasting chances before Joe O’Neill got McKelveys’ first point of the game. Chances then began to come for McKelveys and Joe Pimley had a shot saved, then Finnegan had a shot deflected wide. Carabine managed to win the ball after a placed kick from O’Neill, and directed a shot on the Cuchallains’ goal. The score was signalled with a red flag by one umpire (indicating a goal) and a white flag by the other (indicating a point). A Cuchallains’ player then pulled the red flag from the umpire and a McKelveys’ forward tried to influence the other umpire to award the goal (The Irish News, which published a report of the game on 14/7/31 diplomatically does not name those involved). The referee decided to award a point but such a heated row then followed between the spectators and umpires that the referee decided to halt the game. The County board decided the game had to be replayed.
The replay was on 10th August and was refereed by the chairman of the County Antrim board, Padraig McNamee with selected umpires. McKelveys had Thornbury back for the replayed game, although Ward was still absent. The team that started the game was A. O’Neill in goals, James Pimley, Jack Gaffney and W. Connolly in the full-back line, Joe Pimley, Art Thornbury and P. O’Neill in the half-backs, P. Boomer and Joe O’Neill in midfield, W. Cochrane, Gene Thornbury and M. Finnegan in the half-forwards and Jimmy Steele, T. Carabine and R. Boomer in the full-forward line. There was a strong cross-wind that reduced the accuracy of the passing and the game was frequently interrupted with frees for minor infringements and some bad blood that spilled over from the abandoned first game. McKelveys, playing uphill for the first half, were 0-4 to 0-0 behind at half time. Joe O’Neill then got McKelvey’s off the mark at the start of the second half but a Cuchullains goal left them 1-4 to 0-1 behind. The game then got scrappier and Gunning (Cuchullains) and P. Boomer were sent off. Joe O’Neill then gave McKelveys some hope with two further points to reduce the gap to 1-4 (7 points) to 0-3 (3 points). Cuchullains continued to break up the game and also had Dillon sent off, later followed by R. Boomer (McKelveys). But time ran out and McKelveys lost.
The season wasn’t yet over, though, as McKelveys had also reached the final of the South Antrim Senior Hurling Championship against O’Connells. This was played at Corrigan Park, and the McKelveys’ team was S. McKeown in goal, James Pimley, Davy Matthews and W. McFadden in the full-back line, Joe O’Neill, Art Thornbury and J. Walsh in the half-back line, T. Carabine and P. O’Neill in midfield, Joe Pimley, P. Boomer, and Jimmy Steele in the half-forward line, and, W. Connolly, R. Boomer and Gene Thornbury in the full-forward line. The game started up even enough, tying at 0-1 to 0-1 but O’Connells added a goal and two points before McKelveys scored again. Another goal before the break left McKelveys 2-3 (9 points) to 0-2 (2 points) down at half-time. Despite the best efforts of the Thornburys and Boomers, McKelveys couldn’t reduce the gap and a third goal for O’Connells effectively killed off the game. At the final whistle, O’Connells won by 3-5 (14 points) to 0-6 (6 points).
Hugh Corvin’s absence from the McKelveys’ teams by 1931 is interesting. In 1927, he had stepped down as O/C of the Belfast IRA but was to remain prominent in the McKelveys club for the next couple of seasons. His replacement as O/C, Davy Matthews, was one of those who represented the club at South Antrim Divisional Board. By 1930, Corvin appears to have less association with the club (and the IRA).
In 1931-32, the South Antrim Senior Football League contained nine teams, O’Connells, Rossa, McKelveys, Sarsfields, Ardoyne, St Galls, St Johns, Tir-na-nOg and Shamrocks (Aughagallon), while there were eighteen teams in the Intermediate and Junior leagues. But for the new 1931-32 season McKelveys struggled. In the same year the club also played games against clubs from outside Antrim, such as against a Lurgan team as part of a benefit tournament in January 1932, (which McKelveys lost 3-1 to 1-2). They struggled early in the league in 1932 at which time Art Thornbury and Jack Gaffney were suspended (along with two other senior players). Thornbury, along with another IRA man, was arrested over an attempted arms raid that month and subsequently sentenced to eighteen months in prison. His brother, Gene, also was dragged into the case. Other McKelveys men, such as Willie McCurry, were arrested and imprisoned over the summer (in McCurry’s case, for printing posters protesting Thornbury’s imprisonment).
McKelveys lost to Tir na nOg in January 1932, by which time they had dropped 3 points in the league, as much as in all of the previous season. They then lost to Ardoyne, although they did beat St Galls and St Johns in February. By the time the 1932 South Antrim Senior Football Championship came around in April, McKelveys were no longer contending for the league but easily beat Sarsfields in their first round tie, although eventually going out in a heavy defeat to Tir-na-nOg, 4-5 to 0-1 in October (when many IRA members in Belfast were involved, albeit unofficially, in the Outdoor Relief riots).
The political leanings of the GAA in Antrim at this time was heavily influenced by McKelveys, as can be gauged by its sponsorship of motions with regard to the status of British soldiers, sailors and police being beyond the pale of the GAA in 1930 and again, specifically proposed by McKelveys, in 1932. The later motion called for a definition of the position of the Civic Guard and Army in the Irish Free State, and specifically referred to the issue of the naming of clubs. The motion was eventually withdrawn and referred to the GAA’s Central Committee. McKelveys also had Art Thornbury proposed for position of secretary of the Ulster Council, but he lost out in a ballot.
That summer, McKelveys organised a training camp at Harp Hall near Carnlough. On July 19th, at 4 am, the RUC stormed into the camp. In the main hut, Farrell John Leddy from Rockdale Street in Belfast, a 22 year old doctor and son of a former RIC man, was detained. A bugle was reportedly found in Leddy’s bag, whilst a book with notes about the use of arms was found on a table in the hut. The twenty-five young men found at the camp had their details taken then were transport back to Belfast and released.
The camp had consisted of a wooden hut for the officers and instructors, and, four canvas tents for those attending the camp (the hut was owned by a J. McKeown of Belfast, who also happened to be secretary of the Antrim County board). A tricolour was flown from a flag pole (the flag was confiscated by the RUC). It is clear from accounts of the camp that it was an IRA training camp organised by the McKelveys club. At the start of August the wooden hut used at Harp Hall by Farrell Leddy was burnt down.
The McKelvey’s Senior Hurling team were heavily beaten in Glenarm a week after the camp was raided (they received another heavy defeated from Glenarm in October the same year – somewhat offset by beating Queens University in the Senior Football on the same day). That autumn, McKelveys fortunes were mixed, losing heavily (3-3 to 0-2) to St Galls in October, and then to O’Connells in November (2-1 to 1-2) and narrowly to O’Donnell’s in December (0-3 to 0-2), although going well in the Intermediate Football. That October, the Outdoor Relief riots saw significant street disturbances in Belfast, many involving IRA members (and McKelveys heavy loss in the championship).
Despite the distractions, McKelveys fared a bit better in the 1932-1933 league campaign, with Finnegan, O’Neill and Cochrane playing well, but were hampered by the increasingly regular loss of players to arrest and short-term detentions (as well as longer term imprisonments of a few months). When Art Thornbury was released from prison in October 1933 he was hounded by the northern government, detained again for a month, then deported to the south. This was against the backdrop of a further outbreak of violence in Belfast. It was hoped to run Thornbury as an election candidate that autumn and the RUC, expecting a selection convention to be held, raided McKelvey Hall in November 1933. The convention was held elsewhere and Thornbury was selected (although, as the prison authorities prevented Art signing the nomination papers, his brother Patrick stood in his place in the end). As the convention wasn’t taking place, the RUC arrested fifteen 14-19 year olds who were present instead. They were charged with drilling and, in the end, eight received two months including John McKenna (who got hard labour for refusing to recognise the court), Patrick Lavery, Thomas Graham, Francis Doherty, Patrick McCann, Rory Campbell, Vincent Kelly and Francis McGoldrick. In court, it was claimed that McKenna was giving words of command to the others, such as “’Shun! About turn!”, “Form fours!” and “Quick march!”.
Doherty died soon after his release from prison and was commemorated in the song Belfast Graves, the original version of which was written by Jimmy Steele. The lines of the song mentioning Doherty also feature in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy.
As well as the youths arrested at McKelvey Hall, that November, more senior players and former players were sentenced to between one and three months in prison for refusing to answer questions put to them by a magistrate. Refusing to answer was an offence under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Acts. Those arrested included George Nash, Jimmy Steele, Jack Gaffney, Frank Pimley, William Connolly, William McCurry, Davy Matthews and Hugh Matthews. A club delegate to various county meetings, Brendan Kielty (who was later to travel to Spain with Eoin O’Duffy), was arrested for speaking at an illegal rally in support of republican detainees on 5th November 1933.

In his biography, Harry, Harry White recalls that he would drop in at the McKelveys’ base “…and look up the line-out and composition of the team only to find there were gaps – some of the lads had been arrested; they were replaced by that well-known chap, A.N. Other.”
And the arrests did not end in November. On 15th January 1934, Gerald O’Toole from Spinner Street was in the McKelvey Republican Hall in when the RUC entered. A Constable Fannin questioned O’Toole and three others about their activities and they said there were arranging football fixtures. Fannin then searched O’Toole (who he says refused to answer any more questions) and found a letter on him from a man named Crilly addressed to Jimmy Steele.
There were other problems for the club that month. Davy Matthews had taken an opportunity to sign out of prison for Christmas, as did George Nash. This was against IRA policy as it was giving recognition to the courts and prison service. Matthews was expelled from the IRA. Neither he nor Nash are mentioned again in accounts of McKelveys.
On the field the team was depleted for a visit to Aughagallon to play the Shamrocks in January 1934, where they were beaten 1-8 to 2-1, despite goals from Jack Gaffney and Maguire and a point from Joe O’Neill. That month the team continued to have ‘team troubles’ due to arrests and fielded without key men like Ward, Gene Thornbury and Pimley (although they could still rely on the likes of Jack Gaffney, McGeough, Boomer, O’Neill and Cochrane). They also lost out to Ardoyne in the Senior Football Championship in January 1934, after a replay.
The team continued to struggle, though, even when players returned. On top of being outside contention for the league, McKelveys struggled to be competitive at all in 1934, despite the likes of Gene Thornbury, Adams, Joe O’Neill, P O’Neill, Cochrane, McKeown, Pimley and Boomer doing well. They shipped heavy defeats to the likes of St Galls (3-4 to 0-1) in February and narrowly to O’Connells (1-4 to 0-5) the same month. For the next season, O’Connells also put McKelveys out of the Senior Football Championship in the first round in April.
At the end of 1934, the club proposed a motion on political prisoners that was ruled out of order at the Antrim Convention, at which there appears to have been some dispute as to the maintenance of the ‘non-political’ nature of the GAA.
The club had also continued to field a team in the senior hurling in 1933 but, paralleling the decline of the footballers, slipped down to the Intermediate League where they continued to struggle. At the end of the 1933-34 season, McKelveys’ footballers were relegated and fielded in the Intermediate and Junior Leagues in the winter of 1934 (as well as the Ben Madigan Cup instead of the South Antrim Cup). The 1934 season began equally badly as they struggled in the Intermediate League, losing to Rossa II, O’Donnells, Gaedhil Uladh and Davitts, eventually picking up points by beating St Galls II in January 1935, 2-0 to 0-1. The decline also saw the loss of the players, with the likes of Pimley moving to Gaedhil Uladh to continue playing senior football.
Further violence, including an attempted pogrom in Belfast that summer, as well as arrests at a Belfast IRA training camp in Louth further weakened the club in 1935. In the autumn resumption of the league, McKelveys began strongly in the Intermediate Football League beating O’Donnells 1-2 to 0-2 in November 1935, then St Galls 3-1 to 1-0. In February, Ardoyne were beaten 1-3 to 1-2. By late February, McKelveys were close to the top of the Intermediate League but not in contention for promotion (at the same time the junior team were struggling badly, close to the bottom of their league).
Of the McKelveys’ senior footballers who lined out against the Shamrocks in the Ben Madigan Cup in March 1936, only Jimmy Steele survived from the side who had played in the 1931 Antrim Senior Football Championship Final. The full McKelveys’ line-up was J. O’Rawe, P. Quinn, J. Kelly, J. McManus, J. McCaughan, T. Morris, P. McKenna, M. Clarke, L. Dooley, M. Higgins, J. Steele, H. White, J. Teague, J. Hamill and W. Mooney. McKelveys lost the game 0-3 to 0-0. In its report on the game, The Irish News singled out Morris, McKenna, Steele and McManus for praise. The next week, McKelvey’s made amends, winning the Biggar Cup. By May, Steele too was gone following the Crown Entry raid. By the end of 1936 the club could only field a team in the junior league.
Pearse Hall, which was also used by the McKelveys, was destroyed in a bomb explosion on May 27th 1938. On November 23rd 1938, a raid on the McKelvey Recreation Club off the Falls Road led to the detention of nineteen young men under the Special Powers Act. Those arrested included Matthew Bunting, Thomas Cairns, Kevin Barry Hughes, Michael Mullan, John O’Rawe, Thomas Gourley, David McKay, Joseph McKenna, John McKee, Billy McKee, Frank McCusker, Harry McGurk, Joseph Adams, Hugh Molloy. Most were aged 16-18 and it was claimed in court that they were members of Fianna na hÉireann and were being drilled by John McKee in the hall. All were found guilty and John McKee was given two months, while the others received fines or imprisonment.
On 28th November an attempted bomb attack on the McKelvey Hall damaged the adjoined Rockmount Social Club. By the end of the 1938, the McKelvey club was barely competing even at junior level and, in the face of the introduction of internment and the continued loss of members it eventually folded in 1939. In Antrims Patriot Dead, published in 1966, Jimmy Steele (clearly stating that McKelveys was an IRA club) says that those arrests and internment finished the club in 1939.
In 1940, McKelveys’ veteran Jack Gaffney died on the prison ship Al Rawdah. After his funeral in St Johns, his remains were brought to Milltown. At the funeral, the tricolour was produced which had been placed over Joe McKelvey’s coffin when he had been buried in Belfast in 1924. It was placed on Gaffney’s coffin in the church. It was again placed on Gaffney’s coffin when it was brought to Milltown where he was buried in the republican plot.
When the internees and sentenced prisoners, including many McKelveys’ men and women, were released after 1945 the club was not reformed, instead the main republican GAA club in Belfast was named after Tom Williams, who had been hung in 1942.

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A.?

Who was in charge of the Belfast I.R.A. from the 1920s to the 1960s? Formally, the I.R.A. designated Belfast as either a Battalion or Brigade from 1922 through to the late 1960s with it’s commander usually listed as O/C Belfast. As a clandestine organisation, the identity of it’s leadership was not usually transparent. Occasional arrests and seizures of documents by the R.U.C., particularly internal I.R.A. correspondence, strongly suggests the roles different individual held within the I.R.A., such as when correspondence addressed to the Belfast Adjutant was found in Billy McAllister’s house in January 1937.

Individual memoirs provide much more substance, corroborating some of what is known from court reports and documents. In many cases, though, they tend to roughly pinpoint in time who led the Belfast I.R.A. rather than provide a clear picture of who was in charge, how they came into the post and how they left it. Theoretically the O.C. was elected, where practicable, and many held the role until arrested. As I.R.A. posts were vacated on arrest, someone else typically acted in the role until the previous holder was either released or a formal appointment made in their place. The value in knowing who was in charge, how stable their leadership was and what direction it took the I.R.A. all contributes to a better understanding of how the organisation developed and how it impacted and influenced the course of events.

The list below is based on a variety of sources. I’ve highlighted where there are gaps and, obviously, there may well be significant errors of omissions, given the nature of the source material (and some of this is just guess work).

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1922-23 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division, he had replaced Pat Thornbury as O/C Belfast which had by then been re-organised as a Brigade in October 1922. Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned in April 1923, he was elected leader of the I.R.A. prisoners and was involved in various prison protests. Corvin was involved in the Irish Volunteers prior to 1916.

AOC

Hugh Corvin

1923-24 Jim O’Donnell

O’Donnell replaced Corvin as O/C while Corvin was interned. When Corvin was released from internment at the end of 1924 O’Donnell appears to have stepped back and Corvin took over again as O/C.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

When Corvin returned as O/C of the Belfast Brigade it was during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924.

1925-1926 Jim Johnston

When the Belfast I.R.A. shot Patrick Woods in November 1925 the R.U.C. arrested one individual for questioning but detained a further fifty men, more than twenty of whom were interned until January 1926 including most of the Battalion staff. This included Hugh Corvin. Barely a week after the arrests the outcome of the Boundary Commission was leaked into the press. Judging by correspondence recovered in his house in February 1926, Johnston seems to have acted as O/C while Corvin was interned.

1926 Hugh Corvin

Corvin returned as O/C but only stayed in the position until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the G.A.A. and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast I.R.B. Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermott as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was court-martialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be court-martialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

[By the way – you can read more about all of this in a new book on the Belfast IRA]

1936-37 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. In October 1937, the R.U.C. raided what appears to have been a battalion staff meeting in Pearse Hall in King Street. McArdle was arrested and sentenced to six months in Crumlin Road for having I.R.A. documents in his possession.

1937-38 Chris McLoughlin?

While McArdle was in prison for three or four months, Chris McLoughlin may have acted in the role as O/C Belfast (he may have attended at least one I.R.A. convention in that capacity).

Chris McLoughlin

Chris McLoughlin

1938 Sean McArdle

On his release, McArdle returned as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele 1940

Jimmy Steele in 1940

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

Liam Rice Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.


Pearse Kelly Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

Prior to 1942, Graham had been O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. He presumably after Hugh Matthews some time after February 1942 although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer.

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John Graham

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

1944 Harry White?

In February 1944, Harry White apparently took over as O/C Belfast after Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others.

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Harry White
Harry White

1944-45 Harry O’Rawe?

By April 1944, Harry White went underground to Altaghoney in County Derry seemingly leaving O’Rawe as O/C Belfast. In his memoir, Harry, Harry White implies that he and O’Rawe may have alternated in the role of O/C Belfast.

1945 Johnny Murphy?

When Harry O’Rawe was arrested in March 1945, it seems likely Johnny Murphy took over as O/C Belfast. Murphy was one of a number of I.R.A. volunteers that were induced to sign out of internment by Harry White. White himself had resigned from the I.R.A. then signed out of internment in the Curragh and then was reinstated in the I.R.A.. He later got others to do the same to replenish the Belfast Battalion staff. An organiser sent by the I.R.A. in Dublin, Gerry McCarthy, visited Belfast in April 1945 and that may have prompted the reorganisation of the various roles.

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Johnny Murphy

1945 Seamus Twomey?

In reality the identities of the O/C Belfast after Rocky Burns’ death are repeatedly unclear. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it is possible that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Seamus Twomey

Seamus Twomey

194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949. Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, by which date McCallum may have moved to Liverpool (where he became O/C of the an I.R.A. unit). As noted above, it is not always clear who was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1944 and 1949, so the date that McCallum took on the role is unknown.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960. Jimmy Steele may have taken over again from Cahill until his own internment that summer.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969.

Billy McMillen

Billy McMillen

1969 Jim Sullivan

When McMillen was interned from mid-August to late September, Sullivan acted as O/C Belfast in his place. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant.

Jim Sullivan


Jim Sullivan

1969 Billy McMillen

As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, on release from internment McMillen called a Battalion staff meeting to seek confirmation that he would continue as O/C. When he was forced to restructure his staff, he was also asked to withdraw supports for Cathal Goulding as Chief of Staff on 22nd September 1969.

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

You can read more about the Belfast IRA in the new book.

Belfast O/Cs: a bit of tidying up

Having published a revised list of Belfast IRA O/Cs from 1924 to 1969, I’ve had a chance to look at one of the gaps, in the mid-1940s thanks to prompts from a number of people such as Niall Ó Murchú.

The period when information becomes unclear coincides (unsurprisingly) from when Harry White, O/C of the IRA’s Northern Command, took over as Belfast O/C after Seamus Burns‘ death. White was on the run continuously and was to become the last member of IRA’s GHQ at liberty. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and, in the memoir, Harry, he published with Uinseann MacEoin he seems to indicate that he also delegated the role (fairly casually) to Harry O’Rawe in particular.

By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA and started spending some of his time living under an assumed name (Harry McHugh) in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney for a few weeks in March 1944 after Burns’ death. White then returned to Belfast briefly but went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he once again returned to Belfast. The rough dates for White’s stays in Altaghoney were given during the trial of his hosts, the O’Kanes, in 1946. An IRA hunger strike in Crumlin Road prison had ended on 6th April, seemingly on instructions from the IRA leadership on the outside (presumably White). His memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence, and this may have started when he left for Altaghoney, which must have been after the ending of the hunger strike on 6th April 1944.

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Harry White

Harry White

So based on Harry White’s known movements and his own memoir, it seems likely that White took on the role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death, with O’Rawe taking over in April. He  (O’Rawe) may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945. A combination of O’Rawe’s arrest and Paddy Fleming taking over as Chief of Staff in Dublin in March 1945, appear to have motivated White to move to Altaghoney and go into semi-permanent hiding (although still as O/C Northern Command). While Albert Price remained free until his arrest at the end of September 1945, there are no references to him acting as O/C Belfast in the interim period.

White had returned to Belfast in August 1944 after Charlie Kerins’ arrest in June left him as the only member of IRA GHQ at large (this also now left him as Acting Chief of Staff). As it became more obvious that De Valera was going to have Kerins executed, White moved to resupply his own staff by directing individuals, such as Johnny Murphy to sign out of Crumlin Road. Murphy and the likes of John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Belfast Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy is believed to have also acted as O/C Belfast. The sequencing of this isn’t entirely clear but it may be that Murphy took over as O/C Belfast after O’Rawe’s arrest.

Seamus Twomey (in 1972)

There are other suggestions that might fill some gaps here for the years around 1945-47. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945. As he was only released from internment in the summer of that year, if this is true, it would have to be in the latter half of the year. Since arrests tended to be the catalyst that lead to a changes in O/C, it may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946 and Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

White’s cover had been blown in October 1946 and, after being questioned in Derry and briefly held in Crumlin Road he was driven straight to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White barely avoided execution and was sent to Portaoise for a number of years.

May 1943 to Feb 1944 Rocky Burns

Feb 1944 to March 1944 Harry White

March 1944 to March 1945 Harry O’Rawe

March 1945 to October 1946 Johnny Murphy

October 1946 to ?? Seamus Twomey

?? to early 1949 Seamus McCollum 

So roughly, I’d now guess this is the sequence of Belfast O/Cs from Rocky Burns death until Seamus McCollum who is named by Dessie O’Hagan as O/C in 1949. But there is still some uncertainty as to the overall accuracy of this and the period before just Seamus McCollum took over. That this is all still a little vague is kind of appropriate since it is the period that overlaps with the novel and film versions of Odd Man Out.

 

List of commandants of Belfast IRA, 1924-1969 (updated)

The following is an updated version of the previously posted list of officers commanding the IRA’s Belfast battalion (the name normally given to its structures in the city for most of this time) from 1924 to 1969. The list is based on a variety of sources. Despite the revisions and corrections there are still gaps and may well also contain omissions since those listed are those named in accounts of different events over 1924-1969. Some of the published also contain (eg Anderson, in Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA names Jimmy Steele as O/C in 1969 when it was Billy McMillen), in others an inference is taken, such as in 1934 when Jack McNally had to form a staff (it is implied he was O/C but not stated). I have also noted where the commandant was arrested or imprisoned since IRA volunteers automatically lost rank on imprisonment. In each instance, presumably, someone was O/C of Belfast in an acting capacity.

As ever any corrections or suggestions can be added in the comments section.

1924-26 Hugh Corvin

Former Quartermaster of the IRA’s 3rd Northern Division. As a Belfast Brigade IRA delegate Corvin had supported the Executive against GHQ over the Treaty in 1922. Subsequently interned, he stood for election in North Belfast for Sinn Féin in 1924. Corvin acted as O/C of the Belfast Brigade during the re-organisation that followed after Joe McKelvey’s re-burial in Milltown on 30th October 1924. He continued as O/C until April 1926 when he resigned citing business reasons (he had set up an accountancy firm). He had been arrested in November 1925 and held until the end of January 1926 along with twenty others following the shooting of an informer.

He was to remain a prominent public figure, through involvement in the GAA and as secretary of the Gaelic League in Belfast. He publicly participated in fund-raising for Fianna Fáil in Belfast in the early 1930s and when he stood as an ‘independent republican’ in West Belfast in February 1943 he was largely portrayed by the IRA as a proxy for Fianna Fáil. His later political activity and the coincidence of the Fianna Fáil split suggest it may have been a motive in his resignation.

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Hugh Corvin

1926-7 Dan Turley

In Belfast IRB Circle with 1916 leader Sean McDermot as early as 1907, Turley mobilised at Easter in 1916, was director of elections for Sinn Féin in Belfast at the 1918 elections and was Head of Intelligence in 3rd Northern Division. He was interned on the prison ship Argenta. He took over from Corvin but, apparently clashing with personalities at GHQ, he was portrayed as being difficult to get on with and unpopular. He remained active as Belfast Adjutant and in other staff posts, although he was a recurring target in clashes between the Belfast IRA and GHQ. The RUC used this tension to conspire against him and he was courtmartialled and expelled from the IRA in 1933, then later shot dead in 1936 (his innocence was effectively admitted by the IRA in 1944-45 when it pursued those involved in allegations made against him in 1933).

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Dan Turley

1927-33 Davy Matthews

From Albert Street. A former O/C of C Company, 1st Battalion in the 1920-23 campaigns, including the Raglan Street ambush, and a former internee on the Argenta. Took over from Dan Turley who remained as part of his staff. Instigated re-organisation of the Belfast IRA in 1929, including training camps, Irish language classes and recruitment to Na Fianna. Described by Bob Bradshaw as having a ‘heart of gold and head of ivory’. Also active in Sinn Féin at a time when there were internal divisions within the IRA over whether to co-operate with Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or a left-wing political project (or if they were to co-operate with anyone at all). In November 1933, Matthews was arrested in possession of IRA documents and received a short sentence. So many other senior Belfast staff were arrested, including Jimmy Steele, Charlie Leddy, George Nash, Tom O’Malley and Jack Gaffney that a temporary staff was formed, including Jack McNally, Jim Johnstone and Sean Carmichael.

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Davy Matthews

1933-34 Jack McNally

From the Bone. Another 1920-23 campaign veteran. Appears to have taken over as O/C while Davy Matthews served a short sentence in 1933-34 (this is implied but not explicitly stated in his memoir Morally Good, Politically Bad). While he was in prison Matthews decided to sign an undertaking that he would cease his IRA membership if he was released just before Christmas. So too did another veteran, George Nash. Whether Matthews intended to honour the commitment or not, he was courtmartialled in January 1934 and dismissed from the IRA. McNally only stayed as O/C for a number of months but remained active on the IRA’s GHQ staff until his arrest at Crown Entry in 1936. He was interned in December 1938 and was to later be active in the Anti-Partition League.

Jack McNally

Jack McNally

1934-36 Tony Lavery

From Balkan Street, a Fianna veteran of the 1920s, took over role as O/C Belfast (at the time designated Ulster Area No 1). Despite an order from Army Council not to, he instructed those charged by the northern government over the Campbell College raid to be defended in court. After they were acquitted, the Army Council charged Lavery with disobeying a direct order and was to be courtmartialled in Crown Entry on 25th April 1936 (although it was expected, unlike Matthews, he would merely get a slap on the wrists). Crown Entry was raided just as the courtmartial was to take place and all those present were arrested including the IRA’s Adjutant-General, Jim Killeen, GHQ staff and senior members of the northern and Belfast leadership of the IRA including Lavery’s Adjutant, Jimmy Steele, and other staff members like Liam Mulholland and Mick Traynor.

1936-38 Sean McArdle

Took on role of O/C Belfast after the loss of Lavery and other Belfast staff members at Crown Entry. By early 1937, McArdle had also been arrested and sentenced to a brief term in Crumlin Road. It is not clear from existing sources as to who took on the role of O/C Belfast while McArdle was in prison. On his release he remained as O/C Belfast until he was interned in December 1938.

1938-39 Charlie McGlade

Arrested in Crown Entry, Charlie McGlade was not long out of Crumlin Road when he was sent as an organiser to England as part of the S-Plan campaign. He took over as O/C Belfast from Sean McArdle following McArdle’s internment in December 1938. Apparently influenced by Jim Killeen, McGlade was responsible for developing the Northern Command concept that was put in place in late 1939, with McGlade as Adjutant and Sean McCaughey as O/C. He edited the Belfast edition of War News and remained as O/C Belfast until 1940 (Jimmy Steele was also to be simultaneously Adjutant Northern Command and O/C Belfast).

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Charlie McGlade

1940 Jimmy Steele

A Fianna and IRA veteran of 1920-23, Steele had been imprisoned since the Crown Entry raid, only being released in May 1940. For some time there had been unease at reports that were coming in to the IRA prisoners in Crumlin Road about disciplinary procedures being applied by the Belfast IRA staff. On his release, Steele was appointed to the IRA’s Northern Command staff. He had a dossier on the activities of the Belfast staff and following an investigation they were courtmartialled and reduced to the ranks. No-one names the staff involved (and Tim Pat Coogan, who recorded the episode, does not remember if he was ever told). It may be that McGlade was O/C but was busy elsewhere and this was his staff who were reduced to the ranks. Either way, Steele took over the role as O/C Belfast until his arrest in December 1940.

Jimmy Steele

1941 Liam Rice

Bowyer Bell (in The Secret Army) implies Liam Rice was O/C Belfast in May 1941, when he then left for Dublin to assist in the investigation into Stephen Hayes. Rice had been arrested in Crown Entry and also spent time in prison in the south. He was wounded and arrested in Dublin and spent time on the blanket in Portlaoise during the 1940s. It seems likely that Rice took over from Steele as O/C in December 1940.

Liam Rice

Liam Rice

1941 Pearse Kelly

When Rice left for Dublin, Bowyer Bell states that Pearse Kelly took over as O/C Belfast in May. Kelly too left for Dublin in July to take part in the investigations into Chief of Staff Stephen Hayes. Kelly was eventually to become Chief of Staff himself and ended up in the Curragh. Afterwards he went on to a senior role in RTE as Head of News.

Pearse Kelly

Pearse Kelly

1941-42 Hugh Matthews

During 1941 Hugh Matthews, brother of Davy Matthews and another 1920-24 veteran, took over as O/C in Belfast, and was O/C during the Army Conference in Belfast in February 1942 (according to Bowyer Bell in The Secret Army). Ray Quinn (in A Rebel Voice) says he took over from Jimmy Steele but dates it to a later Army Convention in Belfast in February 1943. It is not particularly clear from surviving accounts, but Matthews appears to have been O/C as further disputes arose about disciplinary practices of his Belfast staff members (but not direct criticism of Matthews himself).

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Hugh Matthews

1942 John Graham

There was a confrontation between the IRA’s Northern Command staff and the Belfast staff in November 1941, again over the disciplinary practices of the Belfast staff. Graham was O/C of an independent unit, mostly made up of Protestant IRA men. This unit was mobilised by the Northern Command staff during the confrontation and ultimately the Belfast staff stepped back in line. Graham took on the role of Director of Intelligence for the Northern Command and (according to Joe Cahill), was also O/C Belfast. This was presumably after Hugh Matthews although the timing is unclear. He was arrested along with David Fleming in the Belfast HQ on Crumlin Road on 3rd October 1942, where printing presses and radio broadcasting equipment were also recovered. Graham, a divinity student in the 1930s, on his release he was to become a noted professional golfer. He died in 1997.

John Graham playing golf in the 1930s.

1942-43 Rory Maguire

Maguire was O/C Belfast in the autumn of 1942, apparently following Graham’s capture in October.

1943 Jimmy Steele

Escaping from Crumlin Road prison on 15th January 1943, Steele re-joined the Northern Command staff as Adjutant and took over the role of O/C Belfast from Rory Maguire (Maguire’s brother, Ned, had escaped with Steele). He remained O/C Belfast when he took over as IRA Adjutant General after Liam Burke’s arrest.

1943-44 Seamus Burns

Following Jimmy Steele’s arrest in May, Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns took over as O/C Belfast. Burns had been imprisoned as a 17 year old in 1938, interned in 1939. He took part in the mutiny in Derry jail and was moved to Crumlin Road prison, only to be returned to Derry from where he escaped with 20 others through a tunnel in March 1943. Recaptured in Donegal, he was interned in the Curragh. Harry White had Burns resign from the IRA, sign out of the Curragh, then rejoin the IRA and return north (when he took over as O/C Belfast). He was shot trying to escape from RUC officers in Chapel Lane in February 1944 and died the next day.

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Seamus ‘Rocky’ Burns

I’ve since revised the next sections (see here)

1944-45 Harry White

Harry White was O/C of the Northern Command at the time of Burns’ death. He was also on the run continuously. He seems to have taken on the role of O/C Belfast for much of the time and also delegated it to others like Harry O’Rawe, Albert Price and Patsy Hicks on an intermittent basis. By the end of 1944, White was Chief of Staff of the IRA but living under an assumed name in Altaghoney on the Tyrone/Derry border. He had first gone to Altaghoney in March 1944. He returned to Belfast briefly, then went back to Altaghoney from around April to August 1944 when he again returned to Belfast (his memoir Harry seems to imply that he had O’Rawe act as Belfast O/C in his absence). From the spring of 1945 White moved for good to Altaghoney. His cover was eventually blown in October 1946 and he was driven to the border and handed over to the Free State government who (it was assumed) would quickly try him in a military court and execute him. White’s luck held and he avoided execution, only to be sent to Portaoise for a number of years. On his release, he was active in the Wolfe Tone Socieites in the early 1960s.

Harry White

Harry White

1945-4? There are gaps here for the years around 1945-47 that have yet to be filled in. A profile of Seamus Twomey (in The Irish Press on 15th July 1972) states that he was O/C Belfast in 1945 after his release from internment. Johnny Murphy, John Bradley and Barney Boswell are also believed to have served on the Battalion staff at this time, from 1945 to 1947 and Murphy may have also been O/C Belfast for a time. Based on Harry White’s movements, it seems likely that White took on role as Belfast O/C in February 1944 following Burns’ death. O’Rawe acted as O/C from in White’s absence and may have taken over the role from then until his arrest on March 6th 1945 (this appears to have prompted White’s final move to Altaghoney). It is possible that Johnny Murphy, having been told to sign out from internment in late 1944, then took over as O/C, followed later that year by Seamus Twomey. It may be more likely that Twomey took over in October 1946, while Murphy replaced White as O/C Northern Command.

Johnny Murphy


194?-49 Seamus McCallum

Richard English names McCallum as O/C when Des O’Hagan joined the IRA in 1949 (it is unclear if this is meant to be Seamus ‘McCallum’ or the Seamus ‘McCollum’ who was arrested in England in the 1950s). As Frank McKearney was O/C when Joe Cahill was released in November 1949, I’m listing them in that order. As noted above, it is unclear who (if anyone) was in charge of what was left of the Belfast IRA between early 1945 and 1949.

1949-50 Frank McKearney

By the late 1940s, Frank McKearney had taken over as O/C Belfast. He had received a six year term for possession of a revolver in 1939. He appears to have taken over as O/C during 1949, at least until the release of Jimmy Steele in 1950.

1950-56 Jimmy Steele

On release from Crumlin Road in 1950, Jimmy Steele again returned to active service with the IRA and once more took over as O/C Belfast while remaining prominent in other organisations such as the National Graves Association and also Sinn Féin. Stayed as O/C until 1956, when he stepped down (Steele was to remain an active republican until his death in 1970).

1956 Paddy Doyle

Took over as O/C in Belfast in preparation for the coming campaign in December, dubbed Operation Harvest. Doyle was highly thought of at GHQ but, due to suspicions about an informer, did not disclose planned operations in Belfast to his own Belfast staff. Doyle spent his time in Crumlin Road completing his education, later qualifying as an accountant, and didn’t get involved in republican activities again on his release.

1956-57 Joe Cahill

Cahill, who had a death sentence commuted in 1942, had been released in 1949 from Crumlin Road. He took over from Paddy Doyle on his arrest in December 1956 until Cahill himself was interned in July 1957. Cahill was to remain an active republican for the rest of his life.

Joe Cahill

1957-60 There is a gap in available information from mid-1957 until about 1960.

1961-63 Billy McKee

On his release from internment in 1961, Billy McKee took on the role of O/C Belfast re-building the battalion effectively from scratch. He had been imprisoned in the 1930s and 1940s and was to remain active in republican circles ever afterwards. During the Wolfe Tone commemorations of 1963 he got involved in a dispute with Billy McMillen, eventually resigned first as O/C Belfast and then from the IRA.

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Billy McKee

1963-69 Billy McMillen

Following the argument over the Wolfe Tone commemorations in June 1963, McMillen took over as O/C Belfast. Having earlier been associated with unofficial bombings in 1950, McMillen had left the IRA in the mid-1950s following an argument and linked up with Saor Uladh. After his release from internment in 1961, he first went to England then returned to Belfast and rejoined the IRA. He remained O/C through the 1960s and was interned just before the pogrom in mid-August 1969. He was imprisoned for a number of brief periods, such as 1966, when he was presumably replaced by an acting O/C by the likes of Jim Sullivan, who was his Adjutant. As part of the fallout over the failure of the Belfast IRA to adequately prepare to defend areas during the pogrom, McMillen was forced to restructure his staff and withdraw its supports for the Goulding leadership on 22nd September 1969. Later killed during an internal feud.

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Billy McMillen

Thanks to all those who have supplied further information, photographs etc.

The Falls Curfew, 1942

The issue of Republican News that was published just after Tom Williams‘ execution on 2nd September 1942, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” Just over a month after Williams’ execution, the IRA did enter into that ‘action’.

At the start of October 1942 there was a sustained series of attacks by the IRA across Belfast (part of what is often inaccurately depicted as a ‘northern campaign‘). On the night of Tuesday 6th October, a bomb in Raglan Street injured three RUC constables, Tague, Hoey and Thompson, and two children, twelve-year-old John Langan and thirteen-year-old Sarah McCrest. On the Wednesday night, IRA volunteers threw a bomb on the Cullingtree Road, then detonated a second at the entrance to Cullingtree Road Barracks. A seventeen-year-old, Alexander Mawhinney from the Grosvenor Road happened to be passing and was injured in the side by splinters from the bomb.

The next night, an RUC constable, Wilson, was shot and wounded when the IRA opened fire on an RUC patrol in the Cullingtree Road. The same night a bomb was thrown at an RUC patrol between Upper Library Street and Kent Street. The bomb fell behind an air raid shelter onto waste ground. The RUC then fired shots at the IRA volunteers who threw the bomb but no-one was injured.

On the Friday afternoon Dawson Bates, as Minister of Home Affairs in the northern government, put part of the Falls Road under curfew from 8.30 pm to 6 am. The curfewed area extended on side along the Grosvenor Road from the junction with Durham Street to the Falls Road itself, from there down Divis Street as far as the Barrack Street junction, then along Barrack Street and Durham Street to the Grosvenor Road. The RUC continued to raid within the curfew area over the Friday night and Saturday morning detaining nine people. On the Friday night a bomb was thrown at Shankill Road RUC Barracks, outside the curfewed area. It shattered the windows in the polic station but caused no injuries.

curfew-area

Area of the Falls Road put under curfew in 1942 (outlined in red).

That night the IRA Chief of Staff, Hugh McAteer, had arranged to pay a visit to see if an old school friend, who was an RUC Constable, could be of any use to the IRA. Instead, the RUC Constable had informed his colleagues and McAteer and his Director of Intelligence, Gerard O’Reilly, were picked up by the RUC. McAteer felt particularly foolish at the circumstances of his arrest.

On the Saturday night there were two further bomb attacks. In Raglan Street (inside the curfewed area) a bomb was thrown at an RUC patrol just as the curfew started. The blast broke some windows but there were no injuries. The RUC opened fire with revolvers at the IRA unit involved but did not manage to hit them or detain them. The predictable searches followed within the curfewed area and seven arrests were made.

A couple of hours later an IRA unit threw a bomb at Donegall Pass RUC Barracks. The bomb fell short and detonated in the middle of the street shattering windows in the barracks and surrounding shops. Five people were injured, including three women, Ella Harrison, Victoria Wilson and Annie Clements, who were brought to hospital (although all were discharged the same evening). The crowd in adjoining Shaftesbury Square scattered as RUC Constables ran out of the Barracks and fired off shots. This alerted B Specials on patrol on Botanic Avenue. More shots were fired at the men who were believed to have thrown the bomb, as they ran up Botanic Avenue. But one passerby who saw the bomb exploding said he didn’t see anyone except the RUC fire shots and it isn’t entirely clear who was exchanging fire. Whoever fired the shots, two B Specials, James Lyons and Joseph Jackson, were seriously wounded. Jackson was shot in the side while Lyons was shot in the chest and died in hospital during the night. Accounts of the shooting in Irish Press 10th October and Sunday Independent 11th October 1942 contain eye-witness reports that suggests only the RUC opened fire. Nor do the issues of Republican News around that date and subsequent memoirs appear to make any claim that the IRA shot Lyons. The file on his inquest is still closed to the public (see PRONI, BELF/6/1/1/7/81).

The next day, another attack appeared to have been foiled when Joe Campbell and Joe Quigley were arrested in possession of a primed Mills bomb near Legoneil Barracks. With Lyons death and McAteer’s arrest, the IRA attacks tapered off dramatically in Belfast. The RUC also made a series of arms finds in Ardoyne in the middle of October, capturing arms dumps in a house in Etna Drive, waste ground in Etna Drive, a nearby garage, waste ground in Belsheda Park and a house in Holmdene Gardens. A further dump was captured in Clyde Street (in Ballymacarret) at the end of October The IRA assumed an informer was at work, which may also have prompted it to close down operations. In mid-November, PJ Lawlor was charged with possession of grenade components and the hearing was held in camera, further increasing suspicion that someone was helping the RUC.

On top of the mass arrests (and subsequent internments) that followed Williams’ execution in September, the northern government clearly anticipated making further raids. On Friday 16th October, two hundred and fifty internees were shipped off to the eighteenth century dungeon that was Derry Gaol (where there had been a prison riot in 1939).

The loyalist bombing campaign also continued. On the night of Wednesday 28th October, a bomb was thrown at St. Brigid’s Parochial House in Derryvolgie Avenue. It struck the roof and rolled down onto the ground at the front door where it detonated. It damaged windows and doors and blew debris into the house. The two resident priests were inside but were unhurt. The bomb was a homemade canister.

On the 30th October, the IRA carried out a number of further attacks in Belfast. A bomb was detonated outside the Harbour Police Station in Corporation Square, beneath a recruiting poster. The RUC fired shots after the IRA volunteers who planted the bomb but were unable to apprehend them. Separately, the RUC challenged two men in Herbert Street in Ardoyne. As the men ran off the RUC gave chase into a crowd outside a small shop. According to the RUC the men dropped a loaded revolver and Mills bomb as they ran. The Mills bomb exploded sending out a shower of splinters that wounded two RUC Constables (Davis and Carnduff), a 7-year-old boy, five teenagers and a woman. Two days after the Herbert Street explosion, a canister bomb was thrown over the wall of a factory that was being used as a British army billet but did no damage. In the raids that followed the two attacks, over seventy people were arrested and detained by the RUC.

For several weeks, there were no further incidents, although the curfew remained in place. At the end of November, the IRA detonated another bomb, this time at the Talbot Street electrical substation. The bomb was similar to those thrown at RUC Barracks in October and went off at the base of a perimeter wall. The blast broke windows for fifty yards on either side of the sub-station.

On the night of December 4th, a B Special called Thomas Armstrong confronted two men in College Street. After a brief confrontation with the men, Armstrong tried to come to grips with them. Instead one of the men broke away and drew a revolver, opening fire on Armstrong who was wounded twice in the back. This appears to be the same incident described by Harry White in his memoir, Harry. White and others on the Belfast staff then proceeded to court martial a Belfast staff officer over the finds made in October. More than anything else, the distraction of that court martial appears to have been responsible for the ending of IRA attacks in Belfast for some time.

The northern government finally lifted the Falls Road curfew after 74 days on 22nd December 1942.

The IRA’s ‘Northern Campaign’

Did the IRA mount a ‘northern campaign’ in 1942-43? According to some historians the IRA began a campaign against the northern government in 1942, which most call the ‘Northern Campaign’. Oddly, though, there is no evidence to suggest that the IRA ever formally began such a campaign.

In early 1942, under Sean McCool then Eoin McNamee, the IRA’s Army Council had debated its policy towards the northern government and the possibility of a northern campaign. The context of this was the long-standing conflict both within the IRA and between the IRA and the southern government over whether the IRA could endorse, passively accept or even just merely tolerate the legitimacy of the southern government. The real issue was whether the IRA should cease any form of military activity against the southern government and concentrate its efforts against the northern government. This was an ongoing bone of contention between the IRA structures north of the border, and, the IRA centre and GHQ in Dublin.

In the sequence of events that led up to the Belfast IRA removing Stephen Hayes as (Acting) IRA Chief of Staff in 1941, two major command meetings had been raided at which there was to be a decision  on whether to mount a formal northern campaign. The removal of Hayes is probably best understood in the context of a Belfast-Dublin dynamic within the IRA and northern frustration at IRA GHQ’s perpetual inability, or unwillingness, to engage in a northern campaign. Apart from brief spells under Kerrymen Sean Harrington and Charlie Kerins, the IRA Chief of Staff after Hayes was normally a northerner, with Pearse Kelly, Sean McCool, Eoin McNamee, Hugh McAteer and Harry White all filling the role up to 1945.

Not that the IRA hadn’t actually considered a ‘northern campaign’. Tom Barry, as Chief of Staff in 1937-38, had gone as far as preparing a plan (basically to seize Armagh in the hope that it would force the Free State to intervene on the side of the IRA). The plan, such as had been put together, was the subject of gossip in Cork then quickly abandoned. Barry hadn’t really consulted with the northern IRA leadership on the plan, though. The IRA Command meeting in Crown Entry in 1936 also appears to have been intended to consider a northern campaign but it too was raided. That it was to double up as a command conference would be the reason why many more senior commanders were present than required for a court martial (the meeting’s stated purpose). Arguably, the sabotage campaign in England, proposed by Sean Russell, was partly a compromise to avoid focusing the IRA’s efforts solely against the northern government (and by doing so, tacitly accepting the hegemony of the southern government south of the border). By 1942 the IRA’s internal debate had still progressed no further than a general proposal to relocate as much weaponry as possible to where it would be used in such a campaign. Much of this is related in Bowyer-Bell’s The Secret Army (although it is presented as part of a formal ‘northern campaign’).

After repeated changes of Chief of Staff in Dublin in 1941 and 1942, Hugh McAteer had taken over from Eoin McNamee and, by July 1942, relocated the IRA’s centre to Belfast where an IRA Executive was to be put together to oversee future activity. Sean Russell’s campaign in England had been the final realisation of a long-proposed strategy going back to the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Fenians. It had been viewed with significant skepticism by the Belfast IRA who had supported it and enthusiastically built up the Northern Command created as part of the campaign, but was then very quick to declare Russell’s campaign as over. Some in Belfast even suspected that the IRB itself had been reactivated behind the scenes as part of the campaign (and that it included both activists on the Free State and IRA side). The relocation of the IRA’s centre to Belfast was equally the manifestation of a twenty-year long northern lobby within the IRA that wanted the organisation to concentrate on removing partition over any confrontation with the southern government. It was thought that all the intrigue, rumour and calamity that seemed to whirl around the IRA’s centre in Dublin would be removed by relocating that centre to Belfast.

As events then unfolded in late August 1942, the now Belfast-centric IRA intended to make a violent response to the six proposed executions of IRA volunteers in Crumlin Road prison (one being Tom Williams). These were to be carried out on 2nd September and this response is often what is described as the ‘northern campaign’. In IRA parlance, though, it had no official standing as a distinct campaign. Indeed, when Russell’s campaign was formally called off by the IRA’s Army Council in 1945, there was no mention of a ‘northern campaign’. However, as part of the preparations for an as yet unplanned future campaign, arms dumps were being assembled at various strategic locations, some close to Belfast. The northern IRA was also using this window of opportunity to get control of whatever weaponry the IRA had available, which would allow it to plan and execute a campaign at its own choosing.

As posted previously, on Sunday 30th August, the IRA issued a ‘Special Manifesto’ that restates the ‘…National principles actuating the Irish Republican Army…’. Again, nowhere does this declare that the IRA is embarking on a northern campaign. The previous day Tom Williams five co-accused had been reprieved meaning only Williams was to be hung. The IRA still intended to make some form of violent response. Politically and among civic society the very active reprieve campaigns continued to try and halt Williams’ execution.

At one of those assembled arms dumps, on the 31st August, at Budore near Hannahstown, an IRA volunteer, Gerard O’Callaghan, was surprised by an RUC search party and shot dead (allegedly finished off while wounded, although there was no inquest or autopsy to confirm the details). Another volunteer that was arrested at the scene, Charles McDowell, appeared to be suffering from shell shock afterwards, such was the volume of gunfire from the RUC during their raid. This happened against the already grim backdrop of Williams’ imminent hanging.

When the RUC raided two farms at Budore, the full inventory of what was recovered is extensive but gives an idea of the weaponry available to the Belfast IRA and its Northern Command. It included eight Thompsons (plus magazines), eight Lee-Enfields, forty revolvers, fourteen automatic pistols, a tear gas pistol, two older pistols, ten revolver barrels, ten revolver butts, twelve revolver cylinders, three automatic pistol barrels, five automatic pistol butts, four automatic pistol magazines, two rifle nose caps, one hand guard for a rifle, a .22 sporting rifle, a round of .40 rifle ammunition, four hundred and ten rounds of .45 Thompson ammunition, eight thousand six hundred and sixteen rounds of .303 ammunition, one thousand three hundred and seventy-eight rounds of .45 revolver ammunition, eight hundred and one rounds of .380 automatic pistol ammunition, thirty-five rounds of .380 revolver ammunition, one hundred and fifty-five rounds of .22 rifle ammunition, forty-one 12-bore shotgun cartridges, a sling grenade, two gas shells, a 3 inch shell, seven holsters, five leather webs/bandoliers, twelve cotton bandoliers, cleaning rods and rifle chargers.

There were also explosive materials including three barrels of potassium chlorate, one hundred and twenty-five grenade cases, eight grenade detonators, three hundred and five detonator sleeves, two hundred and ten grenade detonator screws, forty tear gas grenades, fifty-one tear gas grenade fuses, a coil fuse, an electric firer, three galvanometers, a box of percussion caps, one hundred and sixty sticks of gelignite, four 3-lb tins of gunpowder and an additional bag of gunpowder.

lRA Vol. Jerry O’Callaghan

 

Over that same weekend, the reach of the reprieve campaign gives some indication of the breadth of public sentiment the IRA hoped a northern campaign might ultimately be able to harness as a source of political support. Ironically, many of those involved were not to publicly oppose the six executions of IRA volunteers carried out by De Valera’s government. But that reflects how much deeper was the emotional resonance of IRA action in the north over the south. There were Belfast and Dublin Reprieve Committee’s. Tom William’s solicitor, D.P. Marriman had tried to get an interview with the northern government’s Prime Minister, Andrews, but instead got a meeting with Grandsen, Secretary to the Cabinet. Marriman was accompanied at the meeting by the Dublin secretary of Irish Licensed Vintners’ Association who, in turn had tried to get ex-Belfast Lord Mayor Sir Crawford McCullagh to use his influence (Marriman also wrote to the Governor of Northern Ireland). There was sufficient support in high places for pleas to be made to King George of England and the British Home Secretary, plus a message by Sir Hubert Gough to Mr. Churchill, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Hinsley and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council saying a reprieve would be timely and appropriate. There were also pleas sent to the Duke of Abercorn from former political rivals. The National Union of Seamen wrote to the head office in England, the British TUC was asked to intervene.

IRA Vol. Tom Williams

The Dublin Reprieve Committee made a call for all businesses, shops, manufacturers, offices and transport companies to close from 11 am to 12 pm on the day of the execution. Those that announced their members would close included the Licensed Grocers’ and Vintners’ Association, the Irish Newsagents’ Association, the Irish Retail Tobacconists Association, the Fruiterers’ and Confectioner’s Association, as did the Dublin Trades Union Council.  The Committee also asked people, where possible, to go to churches and other places of worship to pray for the repose of Tom Williams’s soul (which many did). The 11 o’clock mass in the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin was to be offered for that intention. Similar calls were made in Limerick, Galway, Tipperary, Cork, Waterford and smaller provincial towns like Sligo, Portlaoise, Listowel and Portarlington. Some buildings, including public buildings, flew flags at half mast. One shop which did not close on O’Connell Street in Dublin had its front window broken. Most Dublin cinemas did not open until 6 pm.

In Belfast, pubs and shops closed for the day in nationalist districts. Transport workers and dock workers also downed tools for the day in Belfast in protest. Many factories and businesses close to nationalist districts also closed for the day, more in anticipation of trouble than out of sympathy. The RUC patrolled the Falls Road and other nationalist districts in armoured cars.

There was surprisingly little trouble in Belfast on the day of the execution. From 7 a.m., the Crumlin Road for a quarter of a mile on either side of the jail was closed by the police. Trams bringing workers to factories were prevented from stopping. Crowds, mostly women, began to gather at Carlisle Circus and the Old Lodge Road. The atmosphere inside Crumlin Road itself was dreadful. The republican prisoners had agreed to fast for the day and the Catholic prisoners were to attend mass at 8 am to coincide with the time set for the execution.

Out in front of the prison, by ten minutes to eight Catholics among the crowd knelt on the streets and recited the rosary. Women who had gathered at the relatively ‘mixed’ Old Lodge Road junction with Crumlin Road began singing loyalist songs like ‘Dolly’s Brae’ ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ and ‘God Save the King’ and shouted abuse at those kneeling in prayer. The RUC evenutally pushed the crowds back. At the corner of Cliftonpark Avenue and the Crumlin Road a group of kneeling women were ordered by baton wielding RUC men to to move on.

After 8 am when Williams’ was led through the adjoining door of his cell into the execution chamber. The Catholic chaplain had arranged that a key point in the mass, when he raises up the communion host, would coincide with the exact time of Williams execution.

It broke up many of those present.

Outside, as the crowds then moved on from the prison, a group of mostly young women with black scarves marched down the Crumlin Road into the city centre, singing ‘A Soldier’s Song’ and ‘Kevin Barry’. In Wellington Place, near the City Hall, the RUC charged and scattered the crowd (which by then numbered around three hundred), who, in turn, responded by throwing bottles and other missiles taken from dust bins. By the time things were calmed, two men and a few women were arrested. Two of those arrested, James O’Hara and William O’Sullivan got three months for riotous behaviour. All the while the RUC was intensely patrolling the Falls Road and other districts in armoured cars and broke up any groups of people that gathered to prevent crowds forming.

Under these circumstances, that was surprisingly little violence.

It turned out that the RUC patrolling in nationalist districts was largely the prelude to a massive wave of arrests in Belfast and elsewhere that began the next day. After the relative calm in Belfast, the RUC detained over two hundred people on the morning of the Thursday including both men and women. The RUC chased a number of people through the streets before arresting them.

Immediately after the execution, on the Wednesday evening, the IRA had mounted a botched raid on the border in Armagh, in which a number of Belfast IRA volunteers had participated. Outside Belfast a small number of IRA attacks took place in the days after the execution, mostly in the first 48 hours including attacks in Randalstown, Belleek and Clady (where two RUC constables were shot dead).

In Belfast IRA actions were almost confined to the same time frame but all appear to be relate to the continuing RUC raids rather than a formal response to Williams execution.  One young IRA volunteer, Gerry Adams (who was sixteen), was wounded by the RUC when he opened fire at them with a revolver in Sultan Street. Another direct confrontation between the IRA and RUC occurred in Leeson Street where a B Special patrol encountered an IRA unit. During an exchange of fire, Special Constable Cochrane, firing from behind the cover of an air-raid shelter, shot James Bannon who had been armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun. Bannon collapsed to the ground and the IRA unit had to carry him away from Leeson Street with two providing covering fire with their revolvers. Bannon was taken in an ambulance from a house in Sultan Street and later arrested, he had wounds in his arm and stomach. In Servia Street, a follow up search by the RUC after more shots were fired, recovered a revolver that had been dropped in James Lynam’s house. Both Lynam and John McNally were arrested, although Lynam wasn’t an IRA volunteer. Gerald Hodgson (Grosvenor Road) was picked up and charged with possession of illegal documents, while Joe Quinn and Tom Collins were arrested over the finding of a revolver, ammunition and three Mills bomb in Distillery Street. Patrick Tolan and Michael Morris were also charged with possession of arms. Given the number of arrests made by the RUC, the number of formal charges is low (most of those arrested were simply interned without charge).

A week later, on the afternoon of 10th September 1942, the RUC raided the publicity HQ of Northern Command at 463 Crumlin Road in Belfast. After a brief stand-off in which some shots were exchanged, John Graham and David Fleming were both arrested. The RUC recovered six revolvers and ammunition, a full print run of the September edition of Republican News (which the IRA pointedly had re-printed that night and issued the next day, regardless), a duplicator, typewriter and radio broadcasting equipment and more literature. This included booklets on the Constitution and Governmental Programme of the Republic of Ireland, the Constitution of Óglaigh na hÉireann, fifty copies of the Special Manifesto, a memo on the Hannahstown Arms Raid, a Report of Northern Command Convention held in March 1942, one hundred recruiting posters and headed notepaper entitled ‘IRA, Northern Command Headquarters, Belfast‘. There was no ‘northern campaign’ plan found.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the term ‘northern campaign’ is still used by some to describe this period after Williams’ execution, when there was literally a handful of IRA operations, no plan and no sustained activity. While, arguably, the loss of the dumps at Budore and the raids in the forty-eight hours after the 2nd September may have stopped a campaign from taking place, there was no operational plan for such a campaign beyond a general assault on the armed forces of the northern government as a response to Williams execution.

The next issue of Republican News, the first following Williams’ execution, stated that “…neither the passions of the people, nor the fiery demand for action of the Volunteers, will make the Army authorities enter into hasty or unplanned action.” This seems to confirm that there was no formal ‘northern campaign’ planned for the immediate future.

Militarily, in 1942, the IRA still lacked the depth of resources to achieve its goals. The main focus of its campaign by the start of 1943 was to generate publicity and win support for the cause of Irish unity and independence to feature in the political shake-up that would come with the end of the world war. The real target, in that sense, was Irish-America. There had been considerable pressure among Irish-Americans for any US support for the British war effort to be contingent upon concessions from the British over Irish unity. Even after US entry into the war on the allied side, this strategy made a certain amount of sense while the outcome of the war was still in doubt and there was the prospect of a negotiated settlement. It was only really in early 1943, as the Allies moved towards demands for an unconditional German surrender, that the prospect of an international peace conference receded. In that regard, the IRA’s policy, as such, by late 1942 and then in 1943, was not a ‘northern campaign’ but rather to attempt to stage set-piece operations intended to garner publicity with a view to appealing to a broader political constituency that might support the achievement of Irish unity and independence. By the end of 1943, though, the main footprint of IRA policy was dictated by the need to address prison issues north, south and in Britain and any thoughts of a formal campaign were pushed out into the future.

Dan Turley, a 1916 veteran shot by the IRA?

This is a long post but it is worth bearing with it. It concerns Dan Turley, shot dead on 4th December 1936 by members of the Belfast IRA. Despite being mentioned in various accounts of the IRA, the circumstances surrounding Turley’s death don’t seem to have been fully explored or understood. His family, some of whom remained active and staunch republicans, have never wavered in protesting his innocence.

Born in Belfast around 1889, Dan Turley had been involved with the Belfast Circle of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the No. 1 Dungannon Club in Belfast, since 1907. Those involved with the Belfast Circle included the likes of Bulmer Hobson, Denis McCullough (President of the Supreme Council of the IRB in 1916), Sean McDermot (who was to be executed in 1916), Ernest Blythe, Liam Gaynor and Cathal O’Shannon. Blythe remembered him as ‘quite a good fellow’. Turley had mobilised with the rest of the Belfast IRB Circles and Irish Volunteers at Easter in 1916, travelling to Coalisland.

After the Rising, he was Sinn Féin’s director of elections in Belfast in 1918, the election which led to the creation of the First Dáil. Sinn Féin stood a candidate in each of the nine constituencies in the city (Cromac, Duncairn, Falls, Ormeau, Pottinger, St Anne’s, Shankill, Victoria, Woodvale) but fared badly and made little impact. His role in the IRA after 1919 isn’t entirely clear, but as he was appointed Head of Intelligence for the 3rd Northern Division in 1922, presumably he was involved in an intelligence role up until that time. He opposed the Treaty and was eventually arrested and interned in 1922, on the Argenta prison ship and in Larne Camp. He was also treated as a suspect in the death of William Twaddell, a Unionist MP shot dead in May 1922. After his release from Larne in August 1923, he continued his involvement in the IRA.

Turley then served on the staff of Belfast IRA under its O/C, the former Quartermaster of the 3rd Northern Division, Hugh Corvin. When Corvin resigned in April 1926, GHQ had sent an organiser to Belfast, a Staff Captain called Wilson, who notified Dublin that Turley was taking over as O/C. GHQ seemed to think he was difficult to deal with and Turley didn’t last long in the role, with Davy Matthews taking over. Notably (in light of later events) Wilson seems to have been associated with Mick Price and George Gilmore in GHQ.

Turley stayed on as part of Matthew’s staff, often serving as either Adjutant or Intelligence Officer. He also remained a member of Sinn Féin. Harry White remembered hearing Turley give lectures on the party in the early 1930s, and wrote in his memoir, Harry, that Turley was a good speaker and good organiser. Remaining on the Belfast IRA staff, over the years, Turley was also to spend spells as a detainee in prison in Belfast and Derry, often with no charges brought against him. In 1930, for instance, he was picked up and held for a while, at a time when he was specifically concerned at arms dumps being captured by the RUC. Turley didn’t believe those finds were being made by chance.

Over the winter of 1931, Matthews and Turley were to hold meetings over political strategy with Harry Diamond, initially a Devlinite, but later a socialist republican who was to be elected to various offices in the 1930s and later (quoted in Monck and Rolston’s Belfast in the 1930sAn Oral History). Diamond thought they lacked a political strategy at a time when there was increasing agitation on social issues in Belfast.

In the early 1930s the Belfast Battalion was becoming increasingly active. In January 1932, they raided a house in Glengormley for arms., leading to James Connolly and Arthur Thornbury being arrested and given 18 months for larceny. Before their trial, the IRA organised for handbills to be posted up calling for their release. The northern government prosecuted both those who produced the posters, printers Joseph and Thomas Cahill (the father and uncle of Joe Cahill) and those who had ordered the posters; Dan Turley, Tom O’Malley and Willie McCurry. Turley got three months and O’Malley and McCurry a month each.

After his arrest and imprisonment in June, Turley seems to have resigned from the IRA. In a letter he wrote to his wife on the 4th May 1933, apparently referring to when he was arrested, said, “I had been quietly praying to God to guide me if I was doing right in allowing my children to continue in an organisation that, in my opinion, was going day by day anti-Catholic.” He also suspected that the arrests were down to an informer (printed in Irish News and Irish Press on 21st September 1945).

During that year the IRA issued an address to the men and women of the Orange Order, written by Peadar O’Donnell, trying to appeal directly to northern Protestants rather than through the Belfast IRA. Correspondence in early and mid-July between Matthews and the Chief of Staff do make it clear that IRA volunteers in the city did deliver it door to door in districts like Sandy Row. For a number of years, O’Donnell and others in GHQ had been liaising with individual IRA volunteers in Belfast on sociopolitical issues rather than going through formal command channels. Alongside their bypassing of the Belfast IRA staff, there was ongoing and increasingly bitter, and public, criticism of Matthews and Turley by O’Donnell, George Gilmore, Mick Price and others at GHQ.

Dan Turley’s release from Crumlin Road in September after four months included a céili to welcome him home. The real reason for the celebration after his release appears to have been that Turley had decided to go back on the active list. He was later to write that, despite his misgivings about the left-wing political emphasis, he “…went in body and soul to do everything to stop the information that was breaking out somewhere.” He believed that, before his arrest, he was “…close on it and the person, or persons responsible for it were getting afraid…”. Turley also appears to have returned to his role as the Belfast IRA’s Intelligence Officer.

According to Peter Carleton (in Uinseann McEoin’s book Survivors), later that September he was asked to deliver a letter to Davy Matthews at Pearse Hall and found Turley there with Joe McGurk, the Belfast Adjutant. The letter was from GHQ’s George Gilmore who had been openly critical of the resistance and apathy of Matthews and some of the Belfast IRA leadership to Saor Éire and left-wing policies in general. Turley appeared to have already been unpopular with Gilmore’s circle in 1926. Although Matthews was not there when the letter arrived, Turley tried to get McGurk to open it. Carleton objected to this, but Davy Matthews then appeared and read the letter (Matthews had actually been at a meeting of the Painter’s Union). He told Carleton, “This is Communist philosophy, Peter. And there is as much difference between Republicanism and Communism as there is between day and night.” Matthews also dismissed concerns that riots in Belfast were now likely, expressed to him in person by Peadar O’Donnell after rioting in Liverpool at the end of September.

A month later, the Outdoor Relief Riots were to catch Matthews and Turley off-guard. While it is clear from the oral histories collected by Ronnie Monck and Bill Rolston that individual IRA members were involved in the riots, as an organisation the IRA weren’t directly involved. This drew even more criticism onto Matthews and Turley (particularly among those members of GHQ staff that were left-wing) and increasing pressure to participate in future campaigns on social issues.

In December, the RUC ran into a group of IRA volunteers being drilled in Finaghy (later claiming 70-80 men were present). There was a scuffle and some guns were waved around but no-one was injured. As a result of this incident, Sean Turley, Dan’s son, got twelve months and Chris McLaughlin, from North Queen Street, got eight months.

In January 1933, at the trade unions’ behest, Matthews consented to the IRA taking actions in support of a rail strike that was underway. On 28th February an RUC man was killed in an exchange of fire with an IRA unit in Durham Street. By this time the Irish Catholic bishops had already become increasingly vocal critics of ‘Communism’ and the left-wing policies of the IRA and there was quite a public debate in the press on the issue. Clearly not everyone in the IRA agreed with supporting the strike. The letter Dan Turley had written to his wife in which he described the IRA as “…an organisation that, in my opinion, was going day by day anti-Catholic…” refers to the rail strike and is dated 4th May (1933).

Turley was summoned to a meeting in Dublin on the 5th April which he was told was to be an IRA army convention. He was accompanied by two other senior Belfast IRA staff members. He had intended to resign from the IRA, this time for good. Not only had he been unable to expose the informer he suspected among the Belfast IRA, he also disagreed with IRA strategy. Based on his letters, it is also clear that he personally did not get on with a number of other IRA veterans. But at the meeting, he was told that he had been secretly under investigation and was now under arrest. He was placed in a car and driven over the border into Monaghan. While in the car, he was told that he was being charged with giving information to the enemy. Initially, Turley felt that he would be exonerated by a court martial. He was held for a week without anything happening until the next Tuesday night, when he was questioned by a member of GHQ staff. He was asked to admit that he had given away arms dumps. The interrogators beat him badly and after three hours and more threats he agreed to confess, assuming this would lead to a court martial at which he could plead his innocence.

In the morning he was given a statement to sign, which included that he had given away Thornbury and Connolly. He refused and was again beaten for an hour and a half, eventually signing a confession. He was then court-martialled with Mick Price as the prosecuting officer. There was, of course, a history of antagonism between Turley and Matthews and the left republicans, like Price, in GHQ. In that regard, he may have been the victim of a personalised attack by those who disliked him in GHQ.

Turley was found guilty and sentenced to death for spying but agreed to going into exile on pain of being shot if he returned to Belfast. Initially it was suggested he move to Canada, but he refused and in the end Sean Russell accompanied him to Glasgow. Within a few weeks, he seems to have moved to Southampton. Rumours then appear to have circulated that he had returned to Belfast and, at the end of September, two masked gunmen broke into the house he had shared with his wife in Dunmore Street and searched it (finding nothing).

By 1936 Dan Turley had definitely returned to Belfast. Certainly for some considerable time he had been living openly with his own family home in Dunmore Street. As he was in receipt of public assistance, he was to attend the Public Assistance Bureau at 3 pm in the afternoon of the 4th December. He had already been out at mass in Clonard monastery that morning. As he walked along Clonard Street and into Kashmir Road, a car drew alongside him and gunmen jumped out. They shot him four times. When passers-by rushed to his aid they found his hand clasped on a small statuette of the Child of Prague that he carried in his pocket. He died in the Royal Victoria Hospital half an hour later.

Turley himself had written in 1933 that he had concerns that an informer was active and that he was being targeted because of his suspicions (suggesting that he had openly voiced his disquiet among colleagues). Obviously, as he was no longer involved, he was in no position to have given away either the Campbell College raid (in 1935) or the Crown Entry meeting in 1936, which led to the arrest of all but one of the Belfast IRA staff.

Joe Hanna, another 3rd Northern Division veteran, had replaced Turley as Intelligence Officer of the Battalion and was the sole member of the Belfast IRA staff to escape the Crown Entry raid. A letter captured on 15th January 1937 by the RUC in a raid on the home of William McAllister, the Belfast Adjutant, showed that, late in 1936, the Belfast Battalion had been ordered not to carry out any armed actions for a few months. Turley’s death appears to have been carried out despite this order, suggesting it may not have been fully sanctioned by the IRA leadership.

DT

A man called Frank Moyna appears to have been the person who first identified Turley as an informer. In Harry and Ray Quinn’s A Rebel Voice, two stories are told by Harry White, one about the interrogation of Frank Moyna the other about someone who tried to identify a senior IRA figure as an informer earlier in the 1930s. In Ray Quinn’s book this person is identified as the same person who first pointed a finger at Dan Turley. It is clear from the footnotes in Harry, that this is Frank Moyna. Moyna’s name was mentioned in court in connection with the IRA in 1933, some months after Turley’s court martial. This was during the George Gibson court case which led to the imprisonment of some senior Belfast IRA staff and escalated until an RUC man was shot dead in Roumania Street. Harry White had Moyna held for questioning in 1944 but felt that they couldn’t securely prove his guilt. Perhaps not coincidentally, Moyna’s detention was also believed to have prompted a raid on Dan Turley’s son’s house.

In the background, Albert Price and Sean McCaughey had been investigating the security lapses in 1935 and 1936. The raid on McAllister’s home in January may have been the last straw. On 26th January, Hanna attended a court martial in a club on Bow Street then went home. On his way back to Bow Street to hear the verdict he was shot dead at the corner of Marchioness Street and McDonnell Street.

Tim Pat Coogan was later to describe Turley’s as probably the most contentious of all IRA court martials. The most damning comment though is in the prison memoir, published in 1985, by Tarlach Ó hUid. He states that, in 1940, a Chichester Street RUC Detective called Davidson told him that shooting Dan Turley was an injustice. Davidson was presenting Ó hUid with internment papers and they had a pointed exchange that referred to people being shot in the street as informers, during which Davidson said, “In Hanna’s case, that’s one story, Terry. But they committed an injustice over Dan Turley.” (I dtaca le Hanna de, sin scéal amháin, Terry. Ach bhí said san éagóir ar Dan Turley.)

Dan Turley sons remained active in the republican movement and seem to both have been certain of his innocence, and, it would seem that that belief was shared by some senior IRA figures. His son Dan had been producing Republican News with Harry White in 1944 and into 1945 when he was arrested and printing equipment and other material deemed illegal was seized (after Frank Moyna’s questioning).

Turley himself had written about whoever was betraying the Belfast IRA, that he believed that he had been “…close on it and the person, or persons responsible for it were getting afraid…”. Based on the current evidence, Turley appears to have been very much a victim of circumstances. Indeed the RUC admitted his innocence and confirmed Joe Hanna’s guilt to Tarlach Ó hUid. Suspicion, rightly or wrongly, also seems to have fallen on Frank Moyna. Hanna, it is possible (although there is no evidence to confirm it), may have moved against Turley to distract attention from himself in December 1936, contravening the order that the Belfast IRA remain inactive. But this may even have put Hanna under further suspicion. Either way, whether it was Moyna pointing the finger, or Hanna, once Turley fell into the hands of GHQ he found himself at the mercy of his political critics. Given that Turley may have had a history of clashing with Mick Price going back into the 1920s, his selection as prosecuting officer for Turley’s court martial may have ensured a successful prosecution. Either way, Price would have had a conflict of interest as a direct critic of the Belfast leadership. Notably Matthews may have taken the hint and had also left the IRA by the end of the same year.

Taken as a whole, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, rather than being an informer, Dan Turley was twice sacrificed by an actual informer like Joe Hanna or by Frank Moyna (Moyna’s motivation for this isn’t entirely clear). The first time was to his opponents in GHQ, as Turley was getting too close to the real informer. The second to try and distract attention when that informer was close to being discovered. Either way, if Tarlach Ó hUid is to be believed, even the RUC have confirmed his innocence.

Given his service in the IRB and IRA, including mobilising for the Easter Rising in 1916, it would be a significant gesture if his family were asked, for the centenary of the Rising and the 80th anniversary of his death, if they would like a plaque with his name added to the County Antrim monument in Milltown. It will not change the fact that his family had to live with his name being tainted as that of a traitor since 1933. But it would remove any suspicion for once and for all and both restore his good name and recognise his long service to republicanism.